Boldly go, Minister tells school leaders

Peter Peacock gave a Starship Enterprise signal to schools this week to "boldly go where none has been before".

In a message never previously heard from an Education Minister, Mr Peacock said he regretted the self-limiting ambitions of schools which did not think out of the box to consider how they could effect "transformational change."

He told North Lanarkshire Council's annual conference on raising achievement that schools now officially have Scottish Executive "licence"

to decide their priorities. He did not want them to be "reckless", but he did want them to be "bold" and to challenge conventional ways of doing things.

All the Executive was asking in return, he said, was that they comply with the objectives set out in A Curriculum for Excellence that schools should produce "successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society". How they did that was up to them.

Mr Peacock was bluntly reminded, however, that schools which put their heads above the parapet were likely to be "skelped about the head," as Michael O'Neill, North Lanarkshire's director of education, put it. He cited Keith Grammar, whose pioneering work on early sitting of Standard grade exams was criticised by HMIE and the media.

Mr O'Neill said schools in such situations were entitled to expect "support and protection" from their local authority.

Mr Peacock said he was "acutely conscious" of schools' concerns, but he gave an assurance that the inspectorate was "at one with us on this agenda". Graham Donaldson, the senior chief inspector, was forced on to the defensive at last week's TESS seminar as he denied claims that inspectors created "a climate of fear" (page 4).

The Minister rode to the inspectorate's rescue, saying that schools would have his blessing in using the new flexibility given to them. HMIE, he said, "will increasingly be looking not at why schools exercised particular choices, but how".

Mr Peacock promised a statement in March on the debate generated by A Curriculum for Excellence. This would provide indications of his thinking on how schools should recognise achievement as well as attainment, including Standard grade's role.

Mr O'Neill said it was important to establish equivalence between traditional qualifications and external awards, such as the Duke of Edinburgh's, ASDAN and City and Guilds, particularly for the benefit of less able pupils.

"We must start to regard those who acquire skills and gain these qualifications as successes, not failures because they don't have four Standard grades," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr O'Neill revealed, North Lanarkshire is to press on with its programme of "enhanced comprehensives", in which all its remaining 21 secondaries and three special schools for secondary-age pupils will develop particular specialisms.

These schools will join the three sports comprehensives (Braidhurst, St Margaret's and St Maurice's high schools), the music comprehensive (St Ambrose High) and the fledgling enterprise comprehensive (Cardinal Newman High). Plans are already being discussed for schools with expertise in the expressive arts, science and international work.

Mr O'Neill said the programme would "revitalise comprehensives". It did not aim to produce gifted musicians, artists or athletes. All pupils in a school must benefit and, indeed, all schools should benefit from the expertise of the others. He pointed out that St Ambrose High in Coatbridge had 118 pupils studying music at Standard grade and 42 doing Higher music.

"That's not elitist," he said, "it's for everybody."

Derrick Hannan, the head of Braidhurst High, said his school had high attendance and low exclusion rates as well as consistently good exam results when compared with its group of 20 similar schools. "I believe that is due to the fact that we are a sports comprehensive," he said.

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